Development at War: A Short History

Development at War: A Short History
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Socioeconomic development plays a major role in cold, conventional and irregular warfare.  Recent history illustrates how the nature of that role varies with the nature of the conflict and portends likely development execution in future operations.

The Marshall Plan (1948-1951)

The modern era of international development started after the end of World War II.  Secretary of State George C. Marshall, convinced that ”the key to restoration of political stability in Europe lay in the revitalization of national economies,“ launched a program in 1948 to help rebuild Europe and prevent the spread of communism.

The Marshall Plan ran from 1948-1951. The U.S. spent about $189 billion (2016 dollars) on food, staples, fuel, machinery, and investment in industrial capacity, most of it going to the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.  A similar program for Asia spent about $86 billion, most of it bound for Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and the Philippines.      

The Early Cold War Era (1951-1961)

The success of the Marshall Plan led to the creation of the Mutual Security Plan at the end of the Korean War.  This plan was also designed to help develop allied countries, and contain the spread of communism.  For the next decade, the U.S. spent about $21 billion a year under this program on overseas economic development.   

With economic development well-established as an offensive element of the Cold War, in 1961 President Kennedy signed the new U.S. Foreign Assistance Act (FAA).  The FAA created the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), with lead responsibility for foreign aid.  

The Vietnam Era (1961-1975)

U.S. involvement in Vietnam started ramping up in the early-1960s, and development quickly became an integral part of the Vietnam War strategy.  The transnational Mekong Delta Project, designed to catalyze regional economic development, was one of the most visible elements of President Johnson’s strategy.  Far more effective, however, was the Civil Operations and Revolutionary  Development Support Program (CORDS)

CORDS started in 1967 and was largely overseen by the famous John Paul Vann—a former Army lieutenant colonel employed by USAID. As the primary mechanism for executing the civil-military counterinsurgency strategy, CORDS was designed to win the hearts and minds of Vietnamese villagers.  It rolled out in every province and district in South Vietnam and established a strategic and operational model that is still studied today.   

CORDS ended in 1973, overtaken by a more kinetic U.S. military strategy.  Implemented by teams of personnel from USAID, DoD, State, the U.S. Information Agency and CIA, CORDS was arguably the high water mark for USAID in expeditionary development.

The Late Cold War Era (1975-1990)

The late Cold War was widely considered a global chess game between the west and the Soviet Union. Since a USAID presence strengthened the hand of U.S. ambassadors in countries where there was Soviet engagement, small USAID programs sprouted like bluebonnets. As an example, by the end of the Cold War USAID had field programs in twenty-three of the twenty-four countries of central and west Africa. A few short years later, with the Cold War over, that number had dwindled to eight.     

The Post-Cold War Era (1991-2001)

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was the first tangible indicator of the impending crackup of the Soviet Union. By 1991 the dissolution was in full swing.  With a view towards ensuring that the Union stayed dissolved, Congress ordered USAID to seed some of the former Soviet republics with small democracy programs, and help them shift from communist to capitalist economies.  For about ten years, this work contributed to relative calm in great-power affairs. 

The Post-9/11 Era (2001-date)

The fall of the trade towers on September 11th shattered that calm, and radically changed the modern context for development at war.  While insurgencies are as old as the cave man, dealing with a global holy war executed by Islamic religious fanatics was terra incognita.  

Since 9/11, Islamic jihad has diversified, metastasized, and spread like kudzu.  Now one of the most common global catalysts of conflict, it has precipitated a much greater focus on irregular warfare—counterterrorism (CT), unconventional warfare (UW), foreign internal defense (FID), counterinsurgency (COIN), and Stability operations. 

Doctrine for each of these has been written and re-written, and the U.S. has gotten better at fighting them.  Rapid technological advances—from unmanned aerial vehicles to electronic and cyber breakthroughs—have been transformational.  There is now much greater reliance on special operations forces (SOF), which number about 70,000 and deployed to 138 countries in 2016 alone.  In addition, improved battlefield strategies like the ‘by, with and through’ approach used against ISIS in Iraq and Syria have great potential application in other irregular warfare theatres. 

Stability, meanwhile, has become an end in itself rather than just a form of irregular warfare or a transitory phase in the evolution of nation-states.  There is now a growing consensus that stability requires three principal ingredients: security, governance, and the delivery of basic social and economic services. In almost all theatres, these include health and education, basic power, water, transportation and communications infrastructure, and economic opportunity.    

Related, there has been a paradigm shift away from traditional economic development as more countries rely on trade, investment, and domestic financial resources to fund their social and economic development.  Still, over 20 U.S. agencies now run foreign aid programs, and the number of non-U.S. development agents in the war zone has grown dramatically—there were over 150 in Afghanistan at the height of full-spectrum COIN. 

At the same time, U.S. enthusiasm for the whole-of-government approach to irregular warfare has waned.  This is largely due to effective abdication of USAID’s responsibilities as the lead for development in national security under the Rajiv Shah administration (2010-2015), especially in Afghanistan, and the concurrent increase in pressure on the U.S. military to evolve its expeditionary development capabilities to meet mission demands.  

The Past as Prologue

DoD has greatly improved its capabilities in tactical economics and other elements of expeditionary development.  Much of this evolved out of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, including with village stability operations, provincial reconstruction teams, use of reservists seasoned in socioeconomics, sector-level business development, and execution of development projects in every major sector.  This experience has since been adapted to other Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, COIN, and Stability Operations. 

USAID shared a great deal of this experience while executing full-spectrum development in Afghanistan after 2001.  But expeditionary development is more than just development at war; it is development as an integral element of war.  The difference is huge, in both the social sciences and economics, and USAID only got into the fight just before a new COIN doctrine was introduced in December 2006.  After that, USAID was only partially successful at integrating its development work into the military campaign.   

USAID still retains expeditionary capabilities in humanitarian and foreign disaster assistance, through its Office of Transition Initiatives, and in engineering infrastructure.  USAID engineers, heavily supported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), proved particularly effective with road and power infrastructure in Afghanistan.  A new modus operandi for highly kinetic environments—such as that employed in 2016 to finally get the third turbine installed at the Kajaki dam—holds special promise for application in other theatres of the Islamic holy war.  

For now, however, DoD is the only U.S. government organization with the mission, mandate, institutional will, personnel, experience, expertise, force protection, and budget to lead the development element of irregular warfare, especially at the tactical and operational levels. Its expeditionary economics work in Iraq and Afghanistan through the former DoD Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) is of special note, since the best route to national economic stability lies through trade, investment, and mobilization of internal financial flows. Whether within or outside of DoD, establishing a robust capability to execute TFBSO-like expeditionary economics at the sector level is urgently needed.   

Traditional economic development programs are also still needed, to help some conflict countries improve the environment for economic growth, develop core economic sectors, attract trade and investment, and grow internal financial flows.  This has historically been a USAID forte, at least in countries at peace.  To that end, the incoming USAID Administrator should focus on building the agency's expeditionary capabilities in economics, economic governance, and engineering infrastructure.  Whether carried out by USAID or other development agents, that work will be essential to stabilizing conflict countries like Afghanistan. 


Jeff Goodson is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer.  He worked 29 years for USAID (1983-2012), on the ground in 49 countries, including in conflict states in Africa, Asia, Latin America, eastern Europe, and the Middle East.  Goodson was USAID Chief of Staff in Afghanistan from 2006-2007, and Director of Development at ISAF HQ under General David Petraeus and General John Allen from 2010-2012.  The opinions in this article are his alone.

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